March gladness

Sixty-four comics go head-to-head in a basketball-inspired tournament.

FOUL! Filipowski, left, and Kennedy eject comic Lance Weiss.

FOUL! Filipowski, left, and Kennedy eject comic Lance Weiss. Photograph: Imogen Brown

Athletes and comedians are unusual bedfellows—many jokesters are funny as a result of having their asses handed to them by jocks in high school. Still, if there’s a sporting event that even the geekiest members of American society can embrace, it’s the annual NCAA College Basketball Tournament. Davids regularly slay Goliaths. Miracle shots are sunk. Expectations are defied.

The egalitarian nature of that beast is what led Josh Filipowski, a local stand-up, Wisconsin grad and Badgers fan, to create March Comedy Madness, a live competition inspired by the b-ball event. Filipowski, who also produces local showcases as Like 2 Laugh Productions, tinkered with Big Ten– and Big East Conference–themed shows for five years before teaming with Carolines’s Bryan Kennedy in 2007 to create the whole enchilada: a bracket of 64.

In the ever-important first round, contestants have one minute, and one minute only (Filipowski and Kennedy don referee jerseys and enforce the rules with whistles), to slam their comedy hammer down. “Everybody’s bringing their best material,” Filipowski says. “The audience loves it because they’re seeing the best jokes—there’s no downtime.”

The first round takes place Tuesday 11 at Carolines. The 64 performers have already bested much competition at the open tryouts (“regular season”) in February, and Filipowski invited back last year’s Sweet 16 as automatic entries. The tournament continues weekly for a month, culminating in the finals on April 1. (This year’s basketball Final Four happens April 5 and 7.)

Even though the two refs do their best to keep things running smoothly, comedians are as unpredictable as college basketball teams. Filipowski notes a disparity: “Some people will do one joke that takes 30 seconds and that’s it. Others need the whistle blown to stop them.” And although most bring their A-game, some hope experimentation will win the determinant crowd applause. “Last year, Jeff Kreisler didn’t do any material,” Filipowski explains. “He thought his antics would cover him; he didn’t make it. But Clara Bijl did 20 seconds and was like, ‘That’s it.’ And she made it to the next round.”

When 64 becomes 32, the time alloted is upped to two minutes, and the set times keep doubling down the line. When all was said and done last year, Julian McCullough was crowned the March Comedy Madness champ. Though he won’t compete this year (he will perform a short set and pass the torch), the rest of last year’s Final Four are entering as “favorites.” In other words, Helen Hong, Moody McCarthy and Rob O’Reilly are like Duke, Kansas and UCLA.

It’s not going to be easy for even the top contestants to make it all the way—a comedian ranked 16th could even beat a One Seed, something that’s never happened on the basketball side of the analogy. So does McCullough have any pearls of wisdom? “My advice to all the comics entering March Madness is to win the whole thing. It’s way better than losing.”

March Comedy Madness launches Tue 11 at Carolines on Broadway.